Originally published at https://www.theobserver.ca/news/local-news/woman-behind-circles-canada-retiring
The woman responsible for bringing the poverty alleviation program Circles to Canada says it’s grown beyond her expectations over the past decade.
Now in 10 Canadian communities, including Sarnia-Lambton – where Gayle Montgomery first brought Circles to Canada from the United States in 2009 – the program that helps people lead themselves out of poverty with the support of middle-class mentors and allies isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, Montgomery said.
“I think it will just continue to grow,” she said, “because people around the province are having the same experience we’ve had with it here in Sarnia.”
The program works by bringing middle-class people together to help Circles “leaders” achieve two- to four-year plans for change, including better education to attaining sustainable employment. They also back them with the social capital – connections – that many in the middle class take for granted.
“The magic takes place, and we walk alongside these folks as they set goals and dreams into action plans, and achieve things they never thought possible,” Montgomery said. “It is absolutely heartwarming and joyful to be a part of that journey.”
She’ll be cheering everyone on from the sidelines as of Friday, she said.
The 60-year-old married Sarnia native and grandmother of three, who Circles assistant supervisor Kim Godin said has been the face and driving force behind Circles in Canada, is retiring.
Montgomery, who started her 36-year social services career as a crisis counsellor at the Women’s Interval Home, said it’s been a long journey to this point, and she’s looking forward to spending more time with her family.
“Time to put my feet up and enjoy my next chapter of life,” she said.
Godin, who is taking over as Circles co-ordinator, called Montgomery a passionate and inspirational leader who pioneered the program in Canada that has helped hundreds in Sarnia-Lambton alone.
“Gayle is a true one-of-a-kind individual whose heart is for supporting people to a better life,” she said, noting “her legacy will continue as we build upon the foundation she created.”
The County of Lambton officially became Circles Canada’s national training site – providing training and support for other municipally run Circles programs – in 2017.
Montgomery said she thinks the program found success here – lifting people off social assistance – because of the community.
“One of the tenets, so to speak, of the Circles initiative is it exploits the power of a caring community,” she said. “Sarnia-Lambton proved to be that caring community and beyond.”
The Circles Canada chapters – London, St. Thomas, Muskoka, Sudbury, Kingston, an Indigenous chapter in Temiskaming, and the counties of Lambton, Oxford, Wellington and Simcoe – convened in Sarnia-Lambton last month for the first Circles Canada national conference.
“It was just a huge community (collaboration) to come together and celebrate and learn and share,” Godin said.
Montgomery also recently received a lifetime achievement award at the Ontario Municipal Social Services Association Leadership Symposium in Thunder Bay.
The award recognizes contributions of exceptional association members approaching retirement or recently retired, Godin said.
The award acknowledges the change Montgomery helped bring to the system of social service delivery in the province through training thousands of people in the philosophy of Bridges out of Poverty, the research of Dr. Ruby Payne that Montgomery said is shown in action through Circles.
“It was an acknowledgement I think of me kind of rattling the cage a little bit of bureaucracy … bringing a different lens to the way social services are delivered,” she said.